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Evolution of increased larval competitive ability in Drosophila melanogaster without increased larval feeding rate
Multiple experimental evolution studies on D. melanogaster in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that enhanced competitive ability evolved primarily through increased larval tolerance to nitrogenous wastes and increased larval feeding and foraging rate, at the cost of efficiency of food conversion to biomass, and this became the widely accepted view of how adaptation to larval crowding evolves in fruitflies. We recently showed that populations of D. ananassae and D. n. nasuta subjected to extreme larval crowding evolved greater competitive ability without evolving higher feeding rates, primarily through a combination of reduced larval duration, faster attainment of minimum critical size for pupation, greater efficiency of food conversion to biomass, increased pupation height and, perhaps, greater urea/ammonia tolerance. This was a very different suite of traits than that seen to evolve under similar selection in D. melanogaster and was closer to the expectations from the theory of K-selection. At that time, we suggested two possible reasons for the differences in the phenotypic correlates of greater competitive ability seen in the studies with D. melanogaster and the other two species. First, that D. ananassae and D. n. nasuta had a very different genetic architecture of traits affecting competitive ability compared to the long-term, laboratory populations of D. melanogaster used in the earlier studies, either because the populations of the former two species were relatively recently wild-caught, or by virtue of being different species. Second, that the different evolutionary trajectories in D. ananassae and D. n. nasuta versus D. melanogaster were a reflection of differences in the manner in which larval crowding was imposed in the two sets of selection experiments. The D. melanogaster studies used a higher absolute density of eggs per unit volume of food, and a substantially larger total volume of food, than the studies on D. ananassae and D. n. nasuta. Here, we show that long-term laboratory populations of D. melanogaster, descended from some of the populations used in the earlier studies, evolve essentially the same set of traits as the D. ananassae and D. n. nasuta crowding-adapted populations when subjected to a similar larval density at low absolute volumes of food. As in the case of D. ananassae and D. n. nasuta, and in stark contrast to earlier studies with D. melanogaster, these crowding-adapted populations of D. melanogaster did not evolve greater larval feeding rates as a correlate of increased competitive ability. The present results clearly suggest that the suite of phenotypes through which the evolution of greater competitive ability is achieved in fruitflies depends critically not just on larval density per unit volume of food, but also on the total amount of food available in the culture vials. We discuss these results in the context of an hypothesis about how larval density and the height of the food column in culture vials might interact to alter the fitness costs and benefits of increased larval feeding rates, thus resulting in different routes to the evolution of greater competitive ability, depending on the details of exactly how the larval crowding was implemented.
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